POLITICS
09/11/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

McCain Seizes On Russia-Georgia Conflict During Obama's Vacation

Maybe Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin didn't get the memo. World leaders are supposed to grease the skids on the global stage for Barack Obama, not turn long-simmering regional tensions into boiling international incidents during the one week the presumptive Democratic nominee takes a vacation.

All kidding aside, Russia and Georgia likely don't care one way or the other right now about how their conflict plays in America's presidential campaign. But those who do care should note that John McCain currently has the field to himself in addressing the hot international topic of the week.

In a statement released to reporters, McCain not only recapitulates points he made over the weekend, but goes into full-blown professor mode, educating Americans about the history of Georgia and its importance to America's interests.

"Georgia is an ancient country, at the crossroads of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and one of the world's first nations to adopt Christianity as an official religion," McCain said Monday. "After a brief period of independence following the Russian revolution, the Red Army forced Georgia to join the Soviet Union in 1922. As the Soviet Union crumbled at the end of the Cold War, Georgia regained its independence in 1991, but its early years were marked by instability, corruption, and economic crises."

It goes on like this, charting the rise of the Rose Revolution that brought President Mikheil Saakashvili to power. The message is not so much about the conflict, but about McCain being in total command of the facts.

Meanwhile, the Obama campaign is standing pat with its weekend statement. An aide said the campaign didn't see McCain gaining any great traction with the traveling press with on Georgia and played down the need to respond with anything new while Obama is on vacation.

But Steve Clemons, director of the non-partisan New American Foundation, disagrees -- on both the substance and the politics. "There are two levels of ways to look at this: what kind of leadership is needed in terms of diplomacy, and what plays well with American voters."

Thus far, Clemons believes Obama is faring poorly on both counts. On the politics side, McCain has staked out a useful, if not especially nuanced, position of standing by Georgia and "pointing a big finger at Russia," Clemons said. "It plays to the sense that McCain is decisive and can give people a lesson in this part of the world that's obscure for many Americans."

By contrast, Clemons said Obama's weekend statement was "tepid, McCain lite," adding that he has an opportunity to rebut some of the neocon arguments being made on Georgia's behalf by the likes of Bill Kristol (for more on this, see Matthew Yglesias).

"It's not just who rolled their tanks in first," Clemons says of the Russia-Georgia conflict. "It's a question of the other interlocking pieces of this. How did we get there? One, America has been, at best, disinterested in Russia's interests of late. When Kosovo declared its independence, we completely ignored Russia's statements at the time -- when they were promising us payback."

What's more, Clemons says, Obama could work the Georgia angle into his broader critique of "Bush's own inattention and getting us trapped in parts of the world that make our deterrent capability [not respected]."

But if Obama really is missing an opportunity here, how big is it? According to Brian Katulis at the Center for American Progress, it's not huge. "I suspect there's not a good time for anybody who's running for president to go on vacation," Katulis said, adding that he does agree that McCain is attempting to capitalize. "It is being used as an opportunity to score more points in the national security realm, but I don't know that it benefits him that strongly, or how much people are paying attention."

Katulis, who has also provided advice to Obama on foreign policy, said he expects there will be a cessation of hostilities between the two sides before long. When that happens, he said, he thinks the issue will "fade in the face of Olympic news, and also economic concerns at home and summer vacations."

Political consultants often advise candidates to undertake activities that "average" Americans like and understand. After his disastrous excursion into bowling in Pennsylvania, perhaps Obama was simply due to catch a political break by doing what lots of Americans do in August, and simply take a rest from the world's problems.